*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard Oregon on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012
The scripture text for today was painted by many artists during the Renaissance. One of those paintings of the annunciation, which was also painted as a fresco, is by the Florentine artist Fra Angelico. The painting contains the figures of the angel Gabriel and Mary. They are under the arches of a building painted like a blue sky spangled with stars. In the background are Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Through these humans come the Fall of humanity, wheras through Mary comes the redemption of humanity in the birth of Christ. A golden beam with the open hands of God send the Holy Spirit as a dove to Mary, while God’s face, as a relief on the building, overlooks the scene. Gabriel and Mary’s heads are framed with a gold halo. The figure of the angel Gabriel with tan feathered wings has arms folded across his chest. On the other half is Mary looking toward Gabriel also with her hands folded across her chest. It is a sign of the cross and symbol of her submission to God's will in giving life, as Christ himself will submit to God’s will unto death.
The artist has captured that moment when the angel Gabriel announced earthshaking news to the virgin Mary. She will have a child by the Holy Spirit. His name will be called Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High God and reign on the throne of his ancestor King David. Will Mary accept the calling to be the messiah’s mother? It is not a done deal. The angel awaits her response. In the painting there is naturally no movement. Everything is as still as death. No flutter in the angel’s wings. Not one eye blinks. The soft folds of their garments hold as if starched. The moment is frozen in time. As if the world had stopped on its axis. As if time itself were hinged on the answer of Mary. You can almost feel the question that hangs in the still air: "What will be her response?" In this motionless moment heaven and earth hold their breath.
Let's go back to the beginning of the story. The angel Gabriel was sent by God to
Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Sounds similar to what happened in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" doesn't it? An angel is sent at a turning point in someone's life. A life-saving message needs to be communicated. So God sends an angel. The biblical text talks about angels as if they were as common as houseflies. Gabriel shows up out of nowhere and greets Mary as if he were your typical mailman. The angel's voice probably didn't sound like Charlton Hesston speaking in King's English as if inside a cavern. Although in centuries to come the words, "Hail Mary, full of grace" will be uttered in prayer by millions of the devout, those words roll off the angel's tongue with an earthiness as common as "Hi, Mary, you lucky lady." But Mary is more perplexed by what might be behind such a greeting than she is about an angel showing up on her doorstep.
The angel says, "Don't be afraid." Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said that whenever an angel says "Do not be afraid" then you can bet you’re in for a big assignment. And what was Mary's assignment? Oh, not much. Just to be the Mother of God's Son! Talk about big assignments! Mary doesn’t break out in a deep belly laugh, like Sarah did at the idea of giving birth to a nation while still in a rest home. Instead, Mary has a question to ask. Just a little question. If you were Mary, you would have at least one question, wouldn't you? "Just how is this going to happen, Mr. Angel, seeing that I’m a virgin, duhhh?" Mary is no naïve teenager. She knows the facts of life. What the angel tells her must have sounded just as incredible to Mary as did Sarah's news of giving birth in a geriatric ward. Mary's child would come to be through the Holy Spirit. Mary must have been thinking, "What other impossible things are you going to tell me." Could the angel Gabriel have overheard what the angel of the Lord said to a giggling Sarah near the oak trees long ago? For the final words of these two angels are practically the same: "Nothing will be impossible with God."
In the world of the Bible nothing is impossible. Angel's buzz around like common flies. A nation is born from a barren womb. Seas part before God's people. God steps into the world clothed in human flesh. Water turns into wine. A few loaves of bread and a fish feed thousands. A dead man comes to life again. Nothing is impossible with God. With his otherworldly message spoken the angel Gabriel awaits Mary's response to God's message.
Let's stop the action between the angel's last word and the first tremble of Mary's lips.Freeze that moment in the text between the words "God" and "Mary", like the moment frozen in Fra Angelico's painting. Let's brush into that small space in the canvas of time a hypothetical question. What if Mary said, "No"? I'm not being facetious. I'm serious. What if she refused to be the mother of God's Messiah? What if she didn't fold her arms across her chest? It was a real possibility. She had the freedom and the will. What if Mary told the angel, "Forget it, Gabe. Go ask some other teeny bopper"? What if when God spoke to Isaiah and said, "Whom shall I send and who will go for me", Isaiah responded, "Lord, you gotta be kidding. That's just too big of a job for me." Or what if Nikos Kazantzaki's novel idea were true, that Jesus could have refused the way of the cross and lived out an everyday life like everyone else. In the movie, based upon the novel The Last Temptation of Christ, at a crucial moment on the cross time stops. An "angel" appears to Jesus and he is presented with the choice of coming down from the cross, getting married, having children, growing old, and dying a natural death. What if Jesus had not chosen the nonviolent way that would eventually led him to the cross? What if Jesus had not folded his arms across his chest to God's will, but defiantly raised his arms with a sword against Rome, like so many Jewish rebels had done?
Now, in that frozen moment between the angel's announcement and Mary's response we ask, "What if Mary had said 'No'"?
Maybe we don’t face momentous decisions of such great significance as Mary faced. But maybe at times we do. Maybe our responses to God come in small steps, but added up they change our lives and destinies in indiscernible, yet significant ways. Our messages from God may not come from the lips of angels, but they come to us nonetheless. And we’re called upon to respond, to act upon that word. There are moments when God's message comes to us as clear as a bell on a Sunday morning and we can go one way or another.
Let's take some of those moments and freeze frame them. Paint on the canvas of your mind a man, named John, sitting in church on a Sunday morning in Advent. Beside John is his wife, who has a look of contentment on her face. She feels at home. In his childhood John was taken to church sporadically, but always on the holidays. Unlike his wife, church had never become much of a habit for him. Out of a sense of family duty he would show up with his wife on special Sundays to see his children perform or at Easter and Christmas services. John didn't tell his wife, but he thought church was for women and children.
Over the years John sat through quite a few sermons out of respect for his wife and children. On this Advent Sunday, though, something happened. During a moment in the service it seemed like time stopped. It was as if the preacher were speaking directly to him. No, it was more than the preacher. It was as if the preacher were merely a messenger conveying a message directly to him. The preacher was talking about people needing to have a faith of their own and not a faith of their parents or family. It seemed as if she were speaking in slow motion as she was inviting people to commit their lives to Christ and to be baptized into the fellowship of the church. John knows it would be a life changing decision. It would mean living a different kind of life, a life for Christ.
John’s wife, who sits next to him in the pew, is unaware that her husband is frozen in an eternal moment, which has broken in upon time. John is struggling with this life-altering commitment as if he were wrestling with an angel. An unseen finger is gently tapping him on the shoulder. He thumbs through the hymnal trying to avoid thinking about it. He folds his arms and bows his head. It's one of those moments that you feel you finally have to settle with a "yes" or a "no" answer. John opens his eyes and looks up. He must decide. What will be his response?
Fill in the details of this pencil sketch. Joan is very talented. Her skills of leadership are evident to everyone where she works. If she comes across a problem, she will meet it head on and with real creative solutions. There was no problem too big for her to wrestle. Her skills have caused many promotions and raises to come her way. Everyone at the company adores Joan, or maybe I should say, they adore her performance. She has it made. Or so you would think. Yet, when she's done with all the meetings and comes home to her empty, twentieth floor apartment, there is a hole inside her soul. Something's missing from her high-powered lifestyle. She goes to bed, clicks off the light, and stares at the red numbers on her digital clock until she falls asleep.
This morning a printed piece of paper sits on her desk waiting for Joan to arrive. She walks into the office and pulls back her desk chair. The plain piece of paper catches her attention, even amidst the piles of flashy, multicolored advertisements. She lifts the paper to her face. Where did this come from? Printed on the paper are the words: "City project for the homeless needs new director." Now, in her world of high rise and high finance, she was not one to think about such issues, except those found on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But there she was with this job opening stuck to her hand like flypaper. She couldn't put it down. Something deep inside her seemed to be pulling. It was as if the plainly printed words on the paper had been inscribed in gold with an angel's pen. If there was ever the right person to creatively tackle such a problem, it was Joan. She looks out her office window at the skyline of the city as if searching for someone to help her make a decision. What will be her response?
We could fill a gallery with portraits of people who have been greeted by angels unaware and have been called upon to make crucial decisions. A voice speaks from a conference newsletter calling us to build a relationship with a church in another country. Images of working with people in a community ministry get painted on the ceiling of our brain from a slideshow in a church service. A service opportunity for retired persons somehow lands in our lap. An announcement at church, as common as a housefly, buzzes in our ear, “A teacher is needed for the fifth grade boy’s class.” And you thought someone called your name.
God speaks to us in many and diverse ways-----through the words of a sermon, through the reading of the scriptures in a quiet place, in the wind through the trees near the lake, in the comforting words of a friend, in the gravel voice of a gap-toothed man on the street, or as we stare off into the awe-inspiring life of someone named Jesus. God speaks. We can freeze those moments in time, when something, someone bigger than ourselves and our agendas calls us. What will be our response?
Let's go back to Mary. Let's unfreeze the moment held fast in Fra Angelico's painting. Let's read a little farther in the gospel story. Mary has heard the Word of God from the angel. What will she say? Put your ear up close to the Bible and listen. We know what she will say, even before she speaks the words. With arms folded she replies, "Here I am. The servant of the Lord. Let it be... to me according to your word." Let it be. Mary has spoken the words of a true disciple. Let it be. This is Mary’s “Amen” to God’s call. Amen. Let it be. As the Beatles put it, Mary is “speaking words of wisdom...Let it be." It is the wisdom of surrendering ourselves to God’s call. Let it be. It is the wisdom of turning over our broken hearts to the divine healer. Let it be. It is the wisdom of trusting, like a child, that God’s grace will see us through whatever future we face. Let it be. Let it be. Mary speaks words of wisdom to us on this Advent Sunday. Let it be.
We who sit here in this church building far away from Nazareth, beyond the shores of Galilee, on the far side of the cross, and the other side of the open tomb, can thank God that Mary said, "Let it be." For in her decision the divine and the human embraced in a earthshaking, history-making moment. In that moment when she said, "Let it be," God was also saying "Let it be." As in the beginning, when the womb of space was an empty void and God said "Let it be" and it was. Now, through the child born of Mary, God says to a world needing to be reborn, "Let it be." The world is born anew through our many responses of “Let it be.” When we say “let it be” to God’s call, the divine and human embrace.
The divine and human embrace when someone says “yes” to follow Christ. The divine and human embrace when an enemy is forgiven. The divine and human embrace when a congregation lets go of its disappointments and failures and moves on. The divine and human embrace when someone accepts an assignment to serve others. The divine and human embrace when wounds from harsh parents are healed. The divine and human embrace when we turn our future over to God. The divine and human embrace when new possibilities are born. When we say, “Let it be,” to God’s word and will the divine and human embrace. And we come closer to the birth of a new moment, a new path, a new world.
God calls each of us to go where God sends us, to do what God asks us, to be that person God has uniquely created us to be, to share in the birthing of a new world. What will be our response? That crack in time between God's Word to us and our response may be this very moment, when human words become the Word of God. God may be speaking a Word to you, calling upon you to be God's instrument of new life in some small way, wooing you toward a renewed relationship with God, leading us all by the hand to a new future as a congregation…. in this still moment….frozen in time..... while the angels hold their breath…. What will be your response? To God's call the true disciple responds, as did Mary, "Here I am. The servant of the Lord. Let it be. Let it be."